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Isaiah Simmons' talents remain ultimate tease for Cardinals

Johnny Venerable Avatar
January 6, 2022

As they passed each other in the visiting press room at AT&T Stadium, Isaiah Simmons and Vance Joseph could barely contain their excitement. Simmons, who was just minutes removed from forcing the game-winning fumble, embraced his defensive coordinator in jubilation. The former Clemson star, who had struggled for large stretches of Sunday’s game at Dallas, stepped-up in the fourth quarter to help seal a much-needed victory for the Cardinals.

Moments like Sunday’s are why the Cardinals, despite Simmons’ flaws, remain high on the former Butkus Award winner.

“Just that play itself shows you that he’s such a relentless player,” veteran Chandler Jones said of the second-year linebacker. “When you go above and beyond, that’s beautiful to watch.”

It’s no secret that following his lofty draft status, the spotlight has been on Simmons. Selected over the likes of Iowa’s Tristian Wirfs or Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb, Simmons was heralded as a generational prospect the likes of which Cardinals fans had never seen at the position. That’s in part because of what the now 23-year-old was asked to do at the collegiate level. From linebacker, to pass rusher, to dime-slot cover corner, Simmons and his versatility made him too tempting for Cardinals GM Steve Keim to pass.

“When you watch him on tape you see him play the deep middle, you see him play in the box, blitz, rush the passer,” Keim said after the selection of Simmons. “He’s a Swiss army knife and we call that kind of a player an eraser in this league.

“He’s got rare and unusual physical traits.”

While Cardinals fans have seen those traits on display in the ensuing two years, many of the questions that concerned Simmons’ skeptics pre-draft are still present. One of those was whether a team could risk a top-10 selection on a prospect who had no defined position. Simmons is not nearly as dynamic as a pro as he was for the Tigers. Listed as a three-down inside linebacker, Simmons has posted a mediocre PFF run grade of just 42.2. His undersized frame is continually exposed against teams with a run-heavy mentality.

As for his ability to cover, while the 6-feet-4, 230-pound specimen can wow you with his speed, he has also allowed a 91 passer rating to opposing quarterbacks when targeted. Though he is tied for second in the league with four forced fumbles, Simmons hesitation too often leads to him looking out of position. With the body of evidence mounting, it’s fair to wonder where this former unicorn of a prospect is best suited long term.

If the answer to that question is: it’s complicated, then the investment still hasn’t proven to be warranted for the Cardinals. When the price tag is that high of a premium, the franchise is aiming for (at minimum) assurance and stability. To this point, the Cardinals have yet to receive that from Simmons.

Unfortunately for Simmons, outside of the occasional splash play, the position-less wonder is too often wandering off in both run defense and coverage. Perhaps that has more to do with the fact that his rookie year, much like his linebacker counterpart Zaven Collins, was all but washed away by a stubborn Vance Joseph. Simmons was benched following a Week-1 snafu in coverage against San Francisco, only to earn his way back into the starting lineup in late November. But that benching still raised flags about his long-term NFL future.

For all the praise that Joseph receives for coordinating an often brilliant Cardinals defense, his handling of both Simmons and Collins has been a detriment to their overall development. While other rookie linebackers are routinely given ample opportunity to work through their shortcomings via live game reps, Arizona’s back-to-back first-round linebackers are forced to sit and wait behind veterans and journeymen alike. As a result, Simmons is still learning the basics of the position, which has hampered the Cardinals defense. Where he should be experiencing a second-year quantum leap of sorts, Simmons is still taking lumps that lead more to questions than answers.

Keim and the Cardinals have a decision to make on Simmons’ long-term outlook with the team. The hope is that he can continue to grow more comfortable in his multitude of roles, and that he will eventually fulfill the enormous pre-draft expectations. However, if what we’re seeing now is ultimately who Simmons is as a player then there’s reason to wonder if Joseph is the right coordinator to make the most of his unique talents and abilities. Or we may reach the conclusion that Simmons was simply drafted too high.

He’s often effective, but equal parts reckless.

Only time will tell.

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